South Asia

Organized Panel Session

3 - Stitching Subjectivities: Gender, Domesticity, and the Projection of a Western Paradigm in Ceylon

Saturday, July 7
4:30 PM - 6:00 PM
Location: Jacaranda II, First Floor

This essay takes as its starting point a needlework sampler produced in 1848 by a Tamil mission student, who, like most of her classmates, had two names: a Tamil name, cuppar muttu, and her mission scholarship name, Jane S. Purvience. From 1824, the American Ceylon Mission operated female boarding schools in Ceylon’s (now Sri Lanka) northern-most Jaffna province—including one at Uduvil, where muttu/Jane studied, that public memory frequently labels “Asia’s first female boarding school.” Educating the daughters of Jaffna’s land-owning veḷḷāḷar caste was a strategic choice by the American mission toward the social conversion of the region. While the mission relied upon distinctly Tamil teaching methods, its syllabus catered to a New England Christian sensibility, mixing Bible studies, arithmetic, and geography with sewing, lace-making, and cooking. Needlework samplers encapsulated early nineteenth-century American ideals of domestic womanhood and demonstrated a specific middle-class Christian aesthetic, a project that was maintained as the process was imported to Ceylon through the stitching of Bible verses. This essay builds on a pattern set by critical Sri Lankan feminist scholarship by incorporating newly located first-hand accounts of mission needlework pedagogy to argue that the gendered goals of missionary boarding education reinforced mutual interests of the mission and the colonial state in projecting a western domestic paradigm.

Mark Balmforth

Columbia University, Sri Lanka

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3 - Stitching Subjectivities: Gender, Domesticity, and the Projection of a Western Paradigm in Ceylon



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